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How work is changing: AI, automation and virtual coworkers

By John M. Bremen | August 30, 2023

Effective leaders use technology to connect with employees, helping them to see opportunity – not threats – in advancements such as AI.
Employee Engagement |ESG and Sustainability|Work Transformation|Inclusion-and-Diversity|Employee Experience|Benessere integrato|Employee Financial Resilience

As knowledge work becomes more virtual and automated through AI, robotics and other technologies, effective leaders recognize new risks and opportunities.

According to a recent WTW survey, the number of U.S. companies that automate work is expected to climb to 74% in three years (up from 51% three years ago). Companies also expect over half of their employees to work either fully remotely or hybrid in three years, compared with only 15% before the pandemic.

With thanks to WTW’s Tracey Malcolm, effective leaders take six actions to reimagine how and where work gets done in an ever-changing work landscape:

  1. Consider automation tools to be “coworkers” rather than job replacers. Much of the discussion of AI tools – especially generative AI – focuses on the number of jobs that will be eliminated by automation. Effective leaders focus on the jobs added or enhanced by AI. They show that human expertise still will be needed and will be enhanced by automation tools.

    In this example from the insurance space, experts used work reinvention technology to explore how underwriting work could be redesigned using large language models. Using generative AI tools, some underwriters’ jobs could be reinvented, eliminating mundane tasks and enabling them to add value in new and different ways.
  2. Embrace digitization. Effective leaders are preparing for greater use of digitization and automation. They are redesigning jobs, roles and pay programs to embrace new technologies and focus more on the value of specific skills.

    For example, leaders at a utility company worked together across departments (in this case, HR, IT and operations) to identify the new skills required for meter readers to become customer technicians. They then implemented the plan. Their design enhanced the attributes of both people and technology.
  3. Tap alternative sources of talent and phased retirement strategies. To address shortages of people with required skills, effective leaders are tapping potential employees from other industries, recent layoffs from the tech sector, vocational and higher education programs, and other countries. They also are using phased retirement strategies to retain later-career workers. In some cases, companies are working with schools to develop programs to feed their pipelines. In others, they are working with governments to be able to hire more skilled labor from abroad.

    For example, Canada’s new program to entice H-1B visa holders to the country recently attracted so many applications that the limit was reached in less than 48 hours.
  4. Understand inherent risks and take steps to manage them. Effective leaders understand and clarify the risks associated with digital and AI-derivative work. They design jobs dedicated to advising on the use of technology and making AI explainable, interpretable, ethical, fair and less biased. They also provide training to inform employees of data-handling policies, including simulation exercises and gamified assignments. They review policies and standards with employees to ensure they are working securely. They establish usage standards that include guidelines and procedures to keep confidential company, employee and customer data from being exposed.

    In addition, they ensure legal and security reviews of AI services and invest in the latest technology linked to firewalls, antivirus software, servers, virtual private networks and maintenance.
  5. Address the employee experience in new ways of working. Effective leaders understand employees want to spend more time doing meaningful work aligned to company purpose. Therefore, they articulate how automation helps employees achieve greater purpose and growth.

    For example, they explain how automation improves their work experience by taking over mundane tasks, creating greater flexibility, accelerating ideation and assisting in problem solving.

    Effective leaders also are sensitive to anxiety associated with automation and digitization, which require workers to learn new technologies and processes. Many employees fear new work models may make their current jobs obsolete. Effective leaders provide guidance and support to help employees evolve, learn and grow, including training on new skills. They also address the potentially adverse impact of technology and automation on remote and lower paid workers due to new ways of working, including real or perceived biases regarding pay and career growth.
  6. Focus on human connection in a digital and virtual world. Effective leaders understand through research and direct experience that today’s virtual and digital-focused employees feel disconnected and concerned about career development despite most employees’ preference for remote or hybrid work. Effective leaders connect with employees live and virtually, embracing the importance of listening to employees’ changing views and preferences in an increasingly digital world.

    These leaders remain attentive to how new models and tools impact different employees in distinct ways in terms of their jobs, pay and benefits, as well as their physical, emotional, social and financial wellbeing. They also use technology itself to help build better connections with and among employees.

Effective leaders apply their understanding of how automation can close talent gaps, create better work and career options and accelerate change while remaining attuned to the needs of their very human employees.

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes on August 15, 2023.


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